Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, may be finally showing its age, but it is still timeless enough to pack a wallop. The Guthrie’s production, directed by Lisa Peterson, has placed this piece among tall, peacock blue louvered doors and a matching carpet of swirls that seem to heighten the swirl of personal anxieties. A hot orange glow spreads across the back scrim, directing the eye to the mustard-colored bed that tells us, before the first word is spoken, what this play is really about. I didn’t really like the look of this set, which is why it fits the unsettling story of Big Daddy, Big Mama, Brick and Maggie.
It is part of the genius of Williams that characters so flawed, who try very little to be truly conciliatory, can still be so engaging – and funny. By the time we see for ourselves what Big Daddy, played brilliantly by David Anthony Brinkley, is allabout, we are deftly primed to share his satisfaction in shutting everybody up, and stripping Brick’s aloofness bare. Peter Christian Hansen as Brick, had a slow start in defining the widening rift between his wife, Maggie (Emily Swallow) and him, grappling with Brick’s silence as much as the genteel Southern accent. But once cornered by Big Daddy, Brick’s pain is brought too close to the surface. Hansen and Brinkley’s scenes in the second half of the play are heart-wrenchingly real.
Swallow’s Maggie was as solitary as a cat, circling Brick now and then, seeking out a stroke of affection, then returning to the world of the big house they share with the rest of the family – until Maggie finds her way in, through the door opened by Big Daddy. By that time, though, it feels more like Maggie getting her way than a true reconciliation and healing of their relationship. Swallow carries the role with great strength and style, but little was simmering between the two.
Melissa Hart as Big Mama was simply wonderful – stridently irritating voice and all, her devotion to Big Daddy and Brick carrying the story along in comforting waves. Chris Carlson as the unfavored son, Gooper, and Michelle O’Neill as his wife, Mae, nicely captured their desperate and hopeless efforts to please Big Daddy by maintaining a steady work life and supplying him with several grandchildren. The grandchildren made intermittent appearances, carefully choreographed disruptions that sort of came out of nowhere and just as quickly stopped. There was very little about this behavior that seemed believable.
Peterson’s direction seemed to be more a collection of concepts, rather than a clear vision of the overall effect. Her use of Brick’s crutch, for example, was overdone, as was Maggie literally chasing him around the bedroom.
Over fifty years have passed since this play premiered and a lot has changed; sexual identity questions are at least discussed openly, and doctors today would not dream of lying to a patient about his diagnosis. Assuming one can view the crises in this light, the universal truths about love, friendship, family bonds, sexuality, even life and death itself – the larger questions that made this play great – have not lost their relevance. If you have even the slightest interest in Williams, this period and this style of theater, you really should make an effort to see this production. It runs through February 26.